Maira Kalman: Everyday Illuminations
My dream is to walk around the world. A smallish backpack, all essentials neatly in place. A camera. A notebook. A traveling paint set. A hat. Good shoes. A nice pleated (green?) skirt for the occasional seaside hotel afternoon dance.
I don’t want to trudge up insane mountains or through war-torn lands.
Just a nice stroll through hill and dale.
But now I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to
see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.
“Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” is currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Maira Kalman is an award-winning illustrator, designer and author who is perhaps best-known for her New Yorker covers, children’s books and illustrated And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog for the New York Times. She also created an illustrated edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in 2005. In “Various Illuminations,” we get a glimpse of Kalman’s other pursuits—including photography, textile design, embroidery and set design.
Kalman has lived in New York since the age of 4, when she moved with her family from Tel Aviv. In New York and on her travels, she walks everywhere, taking photographs and turning many of them into small gouache paintings. Kalman has an engaging narrative style—her stories immediately grab you and draw you in. Her sense of color is exhilarating. Kalman’s work is joyful, sad, humorous and witty—and her objects and people seem to embody a touching faith that the world around them, in spite of all the lurking chaos and danger, will ultimately protect them. She brings your attention to ordinary objects—tea cups, cakes, sofas—in a way that illuminates their essence.
Kalman’s interiors and portraits bring to mind the work of another favorite artist of mine, Florine Stettheimer. Like Stettheimer, Kalman infuses her portraits with the emotional and intellectual energy of the sitter—the flattened, vividly-colored surfaces come alive with cherished objects and artifacts that define the sitter’s interests and personality.
Kalman wrote an entertaining illustrated essay (see below) about the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Mad About the Metropolitan, for the May-June 2008 issue of Departures Magazine.
What I’ve always admired most about Kalman’s work is her humanity—she manages to portray vulnerability and bravery in equal measure. Her work is completely free of irony and cynicism—she delights in the ordinary, finds the charm in everyday objects and has a boundless enthusiasm for looking at things and turning them into art—an impulse that is nicely summed up in the quote below:
I was out walking the dear dog and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art.
Kalman’s show is at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through October 26, 2010.